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Livestock and water supply: what farmers need to know

Ensuring livestock have adequate, clean water at all times is a welfare requirement, but can require thought and effort.


Chloe Palmer finds out more about suitable water supply options.


How much water do animals require?

How much water do animals require?

The amount animals will drink will depend on their age, diet, the weather and whether or not they are lactating.


Although animals can obtain a large proportion of water from grazed grass at certain times, fresh water must always be made available, irrespective of the time of year.


The figures below are total consumption and include water obtained from forage:



  • Ewes (dry) - 2 - 6 litres per day
  • Ewes (with lambs) 4 - 10


  • Lactating cows - 40 - 100
  • Youngstock - 25 - 50
  • Dry cows - 35 - 80



  • 40 - 50


Providing water for rotational grazing systems

Rhidian Jones of R.J. Livestock Systems advises drinking water provision in rotational grazing systems ‘does not need to be elaborate’, but must be appropriate for the type of grazing animal and time of year.


He says: “Lactating stock will have high water requirements and when grass dry matter is increased, there will be greater requirement for a clean water supply.


“It is essential there is an adequate volume and pressure of water for cattle, especially dairy cows, because if they are being moved regularly onto new grass, they will probably all choose to drink at the same time. It is vital the water trough refills quickly.


“For sheep, this is less of an issue, but it is vital water is provided at all times as there will always be circumstances when sheep will need to drink, such as when fed concentrates or if the weather turns warm and the pasture is drier.”


Where farmers are setting up a rotational grazing system for the first time, Mr Jones says it is usually unnecessary to spend too much money at the outset.


“Look at the materials and equipment you already have and use these to best effect. Dividing one larger field into four units can be done with one central trough at the intersection to start with.


“By not spending too much money initially, farmers can get used to rotational grazing to see if it works for them.”


Mr Jones suggests an overground piped system will usually be sufficient for rotational grazing arrangements where animals are grazed from early spring until late autumn, as freezing pipes will be less of an issue.


He says: “For those who are all-winter-grazing sheep, containers of water can be provided if pipes freeze, as at this time of year, sheep will get most of their water requirements from the pasture itself.”


Mr Jones recommends the use of quick-release ‘push-in’ connection couplings as a simple way of connecting and reconnecting sections of pipe, so water can be provided to different troughs when livestock is moved from paddock to paddock.

In practice

Charley Walker has trialled a range of different options to supply water to his rotational grazing system in the Borders. He supports Mr Jones’ advice regarding the importance of the supply of sufficient volumes to troughs.


Mr Walker says: “Water pressure is relevant, but the volume of water and flow speed are critical to ensure troughs fill at sufficient speeds.


“Choose larger pipe diameters, especially where the source of water is a long distance from troughs, as this will reduce the effect of friction loss on flow.


“I find fast fill troughs invaluable in paddocks grazed by cows. We try to site troughs where cows can see them from anywhere in the field, as they are more likely to be willing to visit troughs alone to drink if the rest of the herd remains in view.

No mains water?

Where grazing opportunities arise but no mains water is available, there are other options where streams and springs are located close by.


Allowing livestock direct access to watercourses is not recommended, as it can cause poaching and pollution of water by faeces and urine and risks exposure to waterborne diseases.


Piping water from springs and streams to troughs can be achieved by a number of different means.




This utilises energy from a large flow of water at relatively low pressure to pump a smaller flow of water at higher pressure to supply drinking troughs.

The systems usually consist of three main components:

  • An abstraction point removing water from the watercourse
  • An intermediate chamber to act as a supply tank
  • A pump to distribute water to troughs

Ram pumps are site specific, so advice will normally be required to ensure correct installation and operation. They cost about £700, but additional fittings for installation and ground works could add up to more than £3,000.




This utilises stock action/movement to operate a mechanical pump and ‘draw’ water from an abstraction point, transferring water to an integral drinking bowl.

One pasture pump is sufficient to water about 15 cattle, but they are unsuitable for sheep as they are unable to operate the lever. Pumps can be sited individually or as a cluster.

The pasture pump generally comprises three main components:

  • An abstraction point, removing water from the watercourse
  • Pipework and mounting blocks
  • Pasture pump

Pasture pumps are suited to a range of situations and are reasonably cheap at about £250.




This uses solar energy as a power source, allowing a battery to be charged which can then be used to power an electric pump system.

Alternatively, larger capacity panels can be used to directly power an electrical pump.

Water can also be pumped to an intermediate storage container to supply a number of troughs as part of a gravity-fed system.

These are generally easy to install systems and it is possible to run an electric fence off the same unit, but they can be expensive at up to £2,000.





Rhidian Jones’ ‘Top Tips’ for providing water for rotational grazing:

 Rhidian Jones’ ‘Top Tips’ for providing water for rotational grazing:
  • Spend time over the first couple of grazing seasons learning about the best rotational grazing setup for the farm and livestock before investing heavily in the water supply infrastructure
  • Start with the existing field structure and infrastructure and build on this; simple designs usually work best
  • Do not place water troughs in narrow, confined areas, as this can limit access for some animals and will cause poaching and compaction in wet weather
  • Ensure water volume availability is sufficient to cope with peak demand from animals and cater for sudden changes to warmer, drier weather


Where more than 20cu.metres (4,000 gallons) of water per day is extracted for agricultural use, an extraction licence from the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales or Scottish Environment Protection Agency will be required

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